I’d always looked forward to growing older. I’ve had friends, family and colleagues who were sad to hit certain milestones in age and wished they could reverse time to stay 18, or 20, or 25. It’s a sentiment I’ve never really shared. I’ve never even fully related to how people jokingly (or perhaps not) lie about their age. When I first started out in the theatre, the directors I deeply admired were not 18, or 20, or 25, or even in their 30s or 40s. The directors I admired were in their 50s, 60s, 70s, etc, or, well, they were dead. So, as an aspiring director and maker of theatre, I’d resolved very early on that the scope of my knowledge and the quality of my artistic work were only going to get better with experience and age. I always couldn’t wait to be older.
I was 16 when I began writing my own scripts and directing them. They were exactly the kinds of experiments you’d expect of a young girl who had all the feelings in the world – all of them. Heart and honesty were always present, but artistic choices at that age naturally lacked skill and maturity, and it showed. Nevertheless, I believed in my work, and I kept writing and creating and performing and directing, and where I fell short in technique and experience I made up for ten-fold in enthusiasm and optimism. That enthusiasm and optimism became vital in carrying me through the rest of my time at youth theatre right to the end of university. When many peers grew out of theatre and landed full time jobs, I persisted. I am one of only a few from my university graduating class who are still practitioners of the arts today.
Now, seven years on, I will begin teaching a trimester of actor training at a tertiary-level drama school. I was invited to attend the students’ orientation this week. I talked with some of the students and listened to them during the information session. They seemed like a very bright and energetic group, and I knew I was going to enjoy spending some time with them.
But the more I watched them and listened to them, the more I noticed something about myself. I’d become incredibly worn out and doubtful that I could be satisfied with a life in art, and I had spent the past number of months being, on the whole, deeply sad. The students’ wonderful attitude towards their work and their futures was an attitude I recognised in my younger self, but have admittedly found difficult to maintain over time. It was an attitude not tainted by exhaustion, by bearing the heaviness of taking rejection too personally, by the feeling that opportunities are always escaping you, or by the disappointment of taking a hard look at reality and realising that certain aspirations that gave you ambition and energy are no longer feasible. And I realised what it was that was so attractive about staying 18, or 20, or 25. I wanted to return to a time when more things still seemed possible.
The trade off in life is a bit strange like that. For all the lessons life can teach you about perseverance and survival, for all the energy, time and money expended on becoming more accomplished, experienced and skilled, there is also that capacity for confidence and vigour to deteriorate, for enthusiasm and optimism to wane. I suppose that is the risk and maybe the compromise. Good things are hard to learn, and this will never stop being the case. But what matters most and is easiest to forget is to be kind to yourself as you progress, as it can be all too easy to narrowly measure one’s sense of self-worth by how others interact with you or how they don’t interact with you, by the opportunities that are given to you or passed on to others.
I am still young myself, and the future I face in experimental theatre is long and daunting. Where or how do you find energy to keep visions strong in an environment where you can easily feel lost, distracted, or exhausted? What was wonderful about having this revelation in the middle of orientation was seeing how these bright students eagerly embraced their commitment to a future in the performing arts, and how they were empowered by the support of their institution. Whenever I work with younger artists, I am always inspired by their optimism and excitement, the kind that is almost tangible and ingrained in the belief that absolutely anything can happen.
I am really looking forward to teaching these students. I suspect I’ll have just as much to learn from them as they will from me.